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Usually corporate welfare doesn't need bribes

Baltimore Councilwoman Helen Holton and developer Ronald Lipscomb have only been indicted, not convicted. The allegation: Holten steered development tax breaks to Lipscomb in return for a $12,500 poll she commissioned and he paid for. As alleged corruption goes it's not exactly a paper bag full of hundred-dollar bills delivered through the back door. But when will public officials learn that they need to avoid even the appearance of receiving favors from business people?

Lipscomb is a beneficiary of two tax cuts for Inner Harbor East. The giveaways are known as "payment in lieu of tax," or PILOTs. They're always smaller than the official tax. Wouldn't you like to be able to scrap your city property tax and instead negotiate with City Council on what you'll pay?

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What's unusual here is the allegation of corruption in allocating the tax breaks. Usually ribbon-cutting ceremonies, legal political contributions and the chance to portray themselves as "pro-business" are enough to get public officials to approve corporate welfare. I can't recall many cases where corrupt money was alleged to have changed hands. But surely there have been many instances where it was never found out.

If we cut down on government handouts to business, we would reduce the temptation on both sides. (Yes, I realize the futility of this argument, made as the federal government is implementing a $2 trillion-plus bailout program.)

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